IDEO and +Acumen's 9-week Human Centred Design Course

Human Centred Design (HCD) has been something I've been thinking about over the past few months, mainly after lengthy conversations with my fellow Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) ( co-organiser and buddy Tim Elliot.  Tim is an expert strategic designer and thinker and has become a mentor when it comes to all things human centred design. He's been practising HCD in a variety of contexts, is really comfortable with ambiguity, and has an uncanny ability to really getting at the heart of the problem. He also has an amazing amount of patience. Where I want to jump straight into solution mode, he's happy to sit back and keep asking a few more questions. So when I asked for his opinion about the IDEO Human Centred Design course I knew I would receive honest advice and a pretty solid critique. Not surprisingly, he also told me to "go for it!" 

What I love about the IDEO +Acumen course (and human centred design in general) is that it has it's roots in product design engineering and it focuses on social impact. I hadn't really come across IDEO, nor +Acumen before, despite the fact that much of what we do at RHoK is driven by the same belief system. So this has been a bit of a revelation...

"At IDEO.org, we design products, services, and experiences to improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities. We practice human-centered design, a creative approach to problem solving that starts with people and arrives at new solutions tailored to meet their lives. We've organized our work into four main programs, areas of deep focus that each offer a unique opportunity for design to improve lives at scale.''


 

IDEO.org is the non-profit arm of the IDEO global design and innovation company. The organisation launched in 2011 (20 years after IDEO was established) with a simple mission – to improve  the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities through design. They've worked on some really incredible projects and taken on some of the world's most difficult challenges. Right now I just can't get enough of their blog. +Acumen is an online educational platform that provides skills, training, and community, to help drive social change. They partner with IDEO and various other companies with the simple mission of democratising access to the knowledge and tools to build a better world.

Reading through the various success stories and challenges faced made me realise that so much of what I done, what I currently do,  and what I've always dreamed of doing, has roots in something similar to human centred design. I was hooked.

It also made me acutely aware of the danger of not implementing human design strategies to solve problems. When I think back to all the research infrastructure, strategy, and change projects I've been involved in that either failed completely, were somewhat successful, or considered a success – but perhaps not as successful as they could have been,  I can't help but think it's because we didn't allow ourselves to fully explore the Why? We didn't take the time to understand how people did the things they were doing. All the projects centred around improving research and researchers lives, but I don't think we really took the time and effort to listen and really understand and what they needed,  and we didn't question our own motivations, assumptions, and biases.  There are cases and specific groups of people where I do think we did this well, or rather we began to do this well.  Of course this is a common problem in many fields and it's not surprising that business has jumped on the human centred design band wagon. 

 Projects are almost always governed or influenced by external factors – budgets, grants, timelines, compliance requirements, and other people's and even  agency's agendas.  It's also why I've felt really frustrated at times. My modus operandi has always been to cut  through the bullshit and create things of value to people, or at least that's what I've tried to do.  Sometimes I've been successful, other times I've been branded the troublesome academic. What I love about Human Centred Design as a formal process, it that it gives you licence to  spend time asking the hard questions, to  explore the problem space, to think outside the box and to go much larger than perhaps would normally be permitted. With a HCD mindset and process to follow I would no longer be that troublesome person who keeps coming up with the crazy ideas... the ideas that might not be so crazy after all. 

Joining a team

Human centred design is a collaborative process and I knew that in order to get a real sense of what it means to practise design thinking, I would a need team. While the IDEO course can be taken online (indeed all the course notes and videos are online), a significant fraction of time is spent working face-to-face in groups and conducting field work. To get the most out of it I wanted to find a really great team of people I knew  I could work well with. Fortunately the Design Thinking & Business Innovation meet-up group came to the rescue. They facilitate team formation for the IDEO and +Acumen course and according to Tim, they do a really nice job of it. So I went along to their team forming meet-up event, keen to hear from other design thinking experts and to find a great group of people. I will admit that I *may* have a little bit of online stalking beforehand; looking at the profiles and backgrounds of the other attendees and reading through some of the comments on the meet-up group.

When team forming began I quickly joined a friendly looking group that had a few of the people that I was keen to meet. I really wanted to join a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and career paths (not hard in my case), who were equally excited about working with a good mix of people, and equally committed to working hard and learning new things. We established a good rapport fairly quickly, and before we knew it we had meeting days, times, and venues locked in.

An Introduction to HCD Fundamentals

The rest of the session was spent practising and being introduced to basic human centred design principles. Much of the the design thinking process involves research – which comes naturally to me, and interviewing people. Many, many, people. This does NOT come naturally to me. Indeed, the idea of interviewing complete strangers is, to be honest, terrifying. For this reason, I'm not always good at listening. In fact I often suffer from that classic introvert trait where one seeks comfort and security by babbling on, and on, and on, with the intent of minimising two-way engagement – oft mistaken, somewhat ironically, as attention seeking behaviour....

So our goal for the night was to be comfortable asking challenging and probing questions, without being defensive or negative, and to learn how get past what may initially seem to be the problem. The "Yes, and..." technique is one of the foundations of design thinking. Surprisingly it's also one of the core principles of improv (*shudder*). The idea is that you listen, accept, and build upon responses, and it's surprisingly difficult to do well. It requires you to really listen, to take what you learn and add to it. So perhaps the analogy of improv is not so surprising after all. When faced with an idea we don't like or agree whole heartedly with, we tend to react with a "No, but...". Or at best a "Yes, but...". The "yes, and.." method forces you to sit back and listen, accept what the other person has said (whether you agree or not) and provide some sort of construtive element. It stops you jumping to the idea or solution that you think is right, and it's an awesome skill to learn.